Kratom is a herb that has been in widespread use in Southeast Asia for centuries; it is chewed for to increase stamina, induce gentle euphoria and relaxation, and it has also been used with unheard-of success to help people kick their addictions to opioid painkillers.
People who use kratom are not able to take high doses, because these induce vomiting. The alkaloid — a relative of coffee — binds loosely to some of the receptors implicated in opioid addiction, allowing people with dangerous addictions to everything from heroin to oxycodone to gently taper off their dosage, without becoming addicted to a new substance. Kratom is not considered addictive, unlike traditional opioid substitutes like methadone.
But the DEA has just announced that as of September 30, kratom will be added to Schedule 1, with heroin — a classification reserved for substances with "no currently accepted medical use" (marijuana is also on Schedule 1, cocaine squeaks onto Schedule 2).
Kratom has not been widely studied, though early research is promising. But substances on Schedule 1 are generally ignored by risk-averse researchers — the DEA's evidence-free classification move virtually guarantees that kratom will languish in obscurity, possibly dooming the tens of thousands of American who die from opioid overdoses every year.
But does it provide medical benefits? Dr. Walter Prozialeck, chair of the Department of Pharmacology at Midwestern University in Downers Grove, Illinois, who conducted a survey of the scant medical literature on kratom, says the herb did indeed help to relieve pain in animal studies.
While no clinical trials have yet been done with humans, addicts in Thailand and Malaysia have used kratom for decades to detox from heroin and alcohol. It was so successful in getting people off opium that Thailand banned kratom in 1943 to stem the loss of the opium taxes that funded the government.
Nobody knows how many are using kratom here in the US. "There are so many testimonials out there [from kratom users] on the Internet that I personally found quite compelling," Dr. Prozialeck says. "This merits further study."
But study has proven difficult. Dr. Edward Boyer, director of toxicology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says that when he tried to conduct research on kratom, potential partners told him, "we don't fund drugs of abuse." Drug companies have shown sporadic interest in isolating the active constituents in kratom since the 1960s, he says, but no pharmaceuticals have yet been developed from them.
Banning a Promising Cure for Opioid Addiction Is a Bad Idea [Richard Schiffman/Wired]
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